‘A Face in the Crowd’: A Legacy 60 Years in the Making

Since its release in 1957, A Face in the Crowd is more powerful in retrospect than Elia Kazan could have predicted.
By  · Published on June 6th, 2017

Since it opened in 1957, A Face in the Crowd is more powerful in retrospect than Elia Kazan could have predicted.

June 2017 marks 60 years since the release of Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, a pinnacle film that did what so few had done before—questioned the motives behind darling TV or radio personalities and the media that creates them. To honor its anniversary, let’s take a look at its legacy and the films that were able to follow it.

Screenwriter Budd Schulberg adapted his short story “Your Arkansas Traveler” for the script of A Face in the Crowd. In both of their major film debuts, Andy Griffith plays a charismatic drunkard turned radio sensation, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes alongside Patricia Neal is Marcia Jeffries, the woman who discovers him in an Arkansas jail. Patricia hosts an innocent radio series coined with the film’s title “A Face in the Crowd,” where she gives the “regular” people of Arkansas air time to tell their tales of everyday life.

Rhodes agrees to sing a song for her show, but not before asking “What do I get out of this?” He sings an abrasive, captivating song that not only impresses Jeffries but all the local listeners as well. Lonesome goes from radio personality to TV host and eventually political advisor. Meanwhile, Jeffries begins to see the power-hungry monster she has created by giving Rhodes the attention he has always craved. 

A different kind of protagonist

It’s Lonesome Rhodes who makes this film different than what came before in movies that dealt with celebrity and media. Unlike Gary Cooper’s character in Meet John Doe, Rhodes isn’t the genuine simple-minded person he claims to be. Most of what he spews he doesn’t follow himself. Rhodes doesn’t resist fame that other characters had before him. This kind of person is the conniving figure that people during that time never expected to fall for, especially when he seemed to represent them. Brilliantly, the film goes beyond the protagonist to further analyze American entertainment. Denise Mann explains this much better than I could in her book “Hollywood Independents”:

“By unpacking the complex social engriddling process that informs television celebrity, the film incrementally shifts the focus away from the celebrity, narrowly conceived, and onto the institutional forces that produce celebrity” (175).

Not only is the protagonist unlike those before, but the film goes deeper to uncover how the story can happen in reality.

Griffith’s character is also what critics had a problem with when the film premiered. In Bosley Crowther’s review in the New York Times in 1957, he insinuates that a sensation like Rhodes couldn’t have happened in reality: “This type would either have become a harmless habit, or the public would have been finished with him!” Critics didn’t like the idea of a Rhodes figure infiltrating the real world. The film’s reception at the time of its release suffered because of that, only getting lukewarm reviews. 

However, Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb contradict that. Review scores are high thanks to reviews from the past ten years that deem it a prophetic classic. The film hasn’t changed at all. The world the viewers are used to has evolved into what the movie portrays. 

From a modern perspective, a legacy grew

Now social media posts from models convince enough people to attend a music festival that ended up being a disaster. A national evening news anchor fabricates a story about being shot down in a helicopter crash. The president denies science outright. Even with the world’s much more jaded view of the media, people are still shocked to find out they can be duped by those feeding them information and advertisements. Although, viewers now can appreciate the film much more because a Lonesome Rhodes story is almost typical. A Face in the Crowd became a classic when reality proved Schulberg’s story to as they say, ahead of its time. 

Then did Budd Schulberg predict the future? No, he just dared to use fiction to challenge institutions when imperfections were consistently overlooked. He had done this before news gave him a historical event to gain inspiration from.

A Face in the Crowd remains a pioneer in film. It may have been one of the first to expose the imperfections of media, but it wasn’t the last. With the help of history as inspiration, filmmakers have continued to analyze the business behind where we get our information. The following movies have Kazan and Schulberg to thank for displaying just how to examine media in fictional film.

Network (1976)

This satirical look at network news starring Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, and William Holden follows a network that exploits an anchor’s on-air suicidal threats and mental deterioration to gain high ratings. Unapologetically painting those in the news as sensationalists and utterly ruthless, this movie asks how objective is the news we get?

Medium Cool (1969) 

Haskell Wexler’s drama follows a TV news cameraman, during the turmoil of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He finds out that his news station has been providing his video footage to the FBI to aid in arrests. While actual historical events surround the story, it’s the fictional characters that harbor the extreme ethical questions of working in media.

Nightcrawler (2014)

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a con man turned onto freelance camerawork for LA news stations. Determined to further his career, he has no regard for the victims of the violent crimes that he films. He only if his footage will make the 11 o’clock news. This movie shows just how far those working in media will go for the next big story, even if it means letting people die in the process. 

Fictional film and social commentary

Moving forward, filmmakers have to continue to analyze media and entertainment in their fictional movies. Soon, the truth will be subjective if we allow powerful people get away with suggesting so. While documentaries can show us proof that there are problems with our media, some people need to see the issues they continue to deny in their real life happen to fictional people in fictional situations. If critics don’t accept new films like A Face in the Crowd, that doesn’t mean it won’t become a classic with time. There won’t be a shortage of inspiration for new stories from the looks of it.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_